Back in the mid 70’s-the first time country music was saved- The Outlaws of country like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings found a home and harbor from Nashville’s ill ways in the Austin, TX singer-songwriter scene. People like Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Martin Murphy, Townes Van Zandt, and Ray Wylie Hubbard had made Austin a vibrant music scene, and a viable alternative to Nashville.
But one of the most important singer/songwriters, and one given credit for writing one of the most solid and most influential albums of that time is a man you may have never heard of. His name is Willis Alan Ramsey, and you may have never heard the name for good reason. After releasing his first and only self-titled album, he nearly fell off the face of the earth.
Willis Alan Ramsey was born in Birmingham, AL, and raised in Dallas. He graduated high school in 1969, moved to Austin, and released his only album on Shelter Records. He rarely played out, never toured, and shortly after the record came out he opted out of the contract with Shelter, and fell completely out of the public eye.
The album was a huge critical success, but without a follow up album and without the support of live shows or tours, the album and the man were virtually forgotten in the public realm, even though within the Austin scene of serious fans and songwriters, the album and the man were virtually peerless. For years after his first release, rumors of a second album swirled, but none was ever released. The mythical second Ramsey album was so rumored and talked about around Austin it became a colloquialism: “It’ll happen when the second Willis Alan Ramsey album is released.” In other words, never.
But Ramsey’s lack of being prolific doesn’t take anything away from his legacy, and I don’t think it is a stretch to put him at the top of the elite list of artists who heavily influenced the Outlaw Country and Texas singer-songwriter scene.
Ramsey’s one album spawned a bevy of cover songs from big named artists, including Waylon Jennings’ cover of “Satin Sheets,” Jerry Jeff Walker and Jimmy Buffet’s versions of “Northeast Texas Women,” and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Goodbye to Old Missoula”. Ramsey also wrote “Muskrat Candlelight,” a song that became “Muskrat Love” and was a hit for both the group America and Captain & Tennille. Though I never appreciated or even understood this song from the more popular versions, Ramsey’s version is not only tolerable, but a standout track of the album.
Willis Alan Ramsey has a pure country sound, with that poetic Texas flavor and wise arrangement and style. His lyrics are astounding and simple all at the same time. He is a top notch wordsmith with a keen voice and a country heart. How he got away with only making one album is a tragedy and a thing of beauty at the same time. Leave the audience yearning for more I guess.
For whatever reason, Ramsey was not destined to be a long-term participant in the Texas songwriter scene, but his one album is legendary to say the least. Ramsey moved to England in the 80’s without that mythical second album seeing the light of day, and then moved back in the 90’s where he began to dabble with music some more, penning Lyle Lovett’s hit, “That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas.”
In 2000, Ramsey made an appearance on Austin City Limits, and if you go to YouTube, you can find some recent videos of him performing live at the legendary Threadgill’s. There is also new rumors of a new Ramsey album named “Gentilly,” but we will see.
If you have a big collection of mid 70’s Outlaw Country and love that sound, but thought the keg was tapped, you might have one more chance to feel that vintage Outlaw Texas Country sound fresh once again. And if you are just starting your collection, Willis Alan Ramsey is a good place to start. Either way, if you fancy yourself a Texas songwriter fan, he is essential.
You can preview tracks from Willis Alan Ramsey HERE.